This week I went to a public lecture by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak titled Who Claims Borderlessness as part of the Berliner Gazette event, Tacit Futures. I wish I could say I knew her work really well but I don’t. I’ve read some bits of her here and there, the famous stuff, but years ago. I had never seen her speak before, so I was charmed by her performance of being Spivak.

Spivak talked about loving being an academic, and those who don’t should stop whining, and leave it. I think she had been cautioned against being too academic in her talk, so she sarcastically signposted every reference to approaching academicspeak: “And so this is what we call – watch out here is an academic term – performative contradiction.” And so on.

She was always conscious of her privilege and who and where she teaches, and as a caste-Hindu. She made frequent reference to her position at Columbia as the only woman of colour, and one of fifteen full University Professors. It’s kind of astounding though that she joined Columbia in the 1990s but was made University Professor only nine years ago. In talking about herself and her family, she was careful and sincere in talking about the generations of caste privilege that enabled her to be where she is.

She talked a lot about her work in rural Bengal,and contrasted life and teaching there, to teaching at Columbia. At some point she wanted to tell a story about her sister and turned and asked “anyone here know Bengali” and for some reason I put up my hand and said I could follow a little Bangla, suddenly wracked by a momentary, yawning-abyss type panic, that she would expect me to converse with her in Bangla. She shielded her eyes and looked out into the audience and said “West or East?” I said “Neither; I can follow it when people, friends, talk”. She turned to the audience and said “see, pah, you all think you’re so global and only one person has Bengali friends.. but then who cares about Bengalis, who knows us..” The anecdote about the sister was swept away and she moved on to the next one.

She and had a lot of anecdotes that were interesting and amusing, but to a mostly European audience probably inaccessible. I really liked how she didn’t footnote any of these anecdotes and left it up to the audience to figure things out.

Also, Spivak just got 91/100 in her Mandarin Oral exam. She chatted in Mandarin with some people in the audience, just like that. That was impressive. She made a wonderful point about the borders around language itself, which are difficult, but sometimes demand respect, but are also porous, cutting through class differences. She referenced being from East Bengal/Bangladesh and how that more Eastern Bangla keeps finding co-locutors in Indian West Bengal where she teaches, thus creating new bonds and connections. About Mandarin, she had a different point, about the border of the script itself, and that identifying something as Mandarin or Japanese is merely an attempt to indicate a fake globality; that the border of the language must be probed and approached to learn how to cross it.

About borders, boundaries, frontiers, and displacement: she had a lot to say including not-so-gently berating Europeans for creating conditions for a new colonialism in positioning Europe as a place of liberation, thereby Othering. And that the ‘Refugees Welcome’ slogan is effectively an inversion of where the Right is, and thereby centering the role of the German/European state(s) as a saviour and liberator. She was generally dismissive, I felt, of efforts to welcome refugees. No one asked her what we should be doing instead.

Some of her one-liners were hilarious insights into this interesting, difficult, person. I liked the meandering-into anecdotes and how they would come back to populate the points she was making. She was, is, by turn, scolding, charming, full of herself, hitting low (“You know, right, there is no such thing as Aryan”), hitting high, laser-sharp. I can’t say I always agree but I was definitely laughing right through. I think the combination of anecdote, reflection, theory and opinion made for an engaging, entertaining talk.

So, here is #SpivakConfidential:

“I run with the blonde-haired, blue-eyed boys, I teach at the top.”

“Ramachandra Guha wrote a stupid book”

[To the Germans] “It’s not Shpivak, it’s Spivak”

“I saw Deleuze excoriate a person because they used ‘vous’ and not ‘tu’ with him”

“I was so trashed in Dubrovnik”

“There is no such thing as Aryan. Remember that”

“Do you know [unclear Italian name].. the semiologist? He was the teacher of Umberto Eco. We were involved.. but I wouldn’t marry him because he was too rich.”

[Spivak trashes Madhu Kishwar] “She did nothing”

“Love me, love me, love me, you know I’m a liberal!” [Spivak ends lecture singing sarcastically.]

“I have made up Bengali words for things like ‘ontological difference’. Otherwise how can I teach in the village?!”

“I was on the same flight from Paris as Michael Ryan who had a huge lump of hash in his jacket pocket that the students had given him… he kicked it under the trash, somewhere, before we got to immigration. And they took me away for questioning, strip searched!Fingers in orifices looking for drugs! Hah, Ryan has an American passport, see!”

“If you’re a brown woman who is about to be strip searched for drugs in an American airport, just say you only want someone from your embassy to do it. Then, you’ll be fine. They’ll never send someone from the Indian embassy … [chuckles].”

“You want to stop? No more questions? Come on, give me more. I’m high on adrenaline, I can go on.”

(Image from Dawn and glitched with an online glitcher)

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